June 18, 2013

Updated: House packed with ammo, fireworks, clutter burns in Overland Park

All four residents escaped safely before firefighters began cutting through a wall with a chainsaw to clear debris from a burning bedroom.

Live ammunition, fireworks and excessive clutter created significant obstacles for Overland Park firefighters as they battled a house fire early Tuesday.

Firefighters arrived at the fire in the 8800 block of Westbrooke Drive about 2 a.m.

“Our first units on the scene reported smoke and fire from the basement window of a single-story home,” said Jason Rhodes, a spokesman for the Overland Park Fire Department. “They immediately went to work on both attacking the fire in the basement and doing a primary search of the residence.”

Everyone had already escaped, but a team of firefighters searched the house to make sure no one else was inside while another team entered the basement to fight the fire. But firefighters couldn’t get around the basement because of all the clutter, Rhodes said.

“Basement fires are always dangerous just being below grade and being in kind of a place with limited egress that can be a concern to start with,” Rhodes said. “In this instance we had a tremendous amount of clutter piled up in that basement. So much so that it was very difficult for our firefighting crews to work.”

Excessive clutter can make it difficult for residents to escape and tough for firefighters to find victims or the seat of a fire, which can be buried in burning debris.

“It basically gives the fire kind of a head start because it takes longer to find it and extinguish it,” Rhodes said. “It’s also a safety concern. If it’s hard to move through a structure, people can fall and be injured. People can have trouble doing their normal firefighting duties.”

As a team of firefighters tried to extinguish the fire in a front bedroom where it had spread, they found hoarding there too, he said.

And that’s about when fireworks and ammunition in the room started to discharge.

“Fortunately we didn’t have firefighters in that room at that time, so we were able to sort of stand back a minute, take stock, figure out an attack plan and go in and extinguish that,” Rhodes said.

Typically firefighters will start throwing debris out a window to make sure there is no hidden blaze.

But the room was so filled with so much clutter, firefighters had to take out part of an exterior wall with a chainsaw so they could reach the flames. They threw the debris on tarps to clear the room, pulled the tarps away from the house and doused the pile with water.

The residents told fire investigators that they woke to the smell of smoke. One of them suffered minor burns and was treated at the scene.

Smoke and fire caused significant damaged throughout the house.

The cause is being investigated.

There was one smoke alarm in the front hallway, Rhodes said. While a resident said that he had heard it, firefighters never heard it and it wasn’t melted.

“At best it was partially operational,” Rhodes said. “It certainly wasn’t a fully functional smoke alarm, otherwise it would have been sounding while we were there.”

People not only need to have smoke alarms, they need to check them monthly to make sure they are working, Rhodes said.

“The middle of the night fire is the worst case scenario because people are asleep — most people die in house fires from smoke well before the fire gets to them,” Rhodes said. “That’s why that smoke alarm is so important.

“It’s going to sense that smoke and wake you before that smoke overcomes you. We are so lucky in this instance that we didn’t have a worse outcome.”

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